Thursday, May 23, 2013


Fast depletion of fossil fuel sources has created a sense of panic among wealthy countries as well as newly emerging economies and this realization has spurred enormous research and development activities to find out suitable alternatives at comparable cost. While non-conventional energy sources like solar, wind, waves, geothermal etc are available in plenty, their commercial exploitation is fraught with enormous challenges to the energy scientists. So far solar energy seems to have an edge and many countries are investing heavily in solar energy projects to generate power. With cutting edge technologies emerging from countries like China, the generation cost and investments are coming down very significantly offering some hope for future. What is not attempted in a big way is the potential capacity of microorganisms to produce energy from cheap sources at economically attractive costs. The horizontal solar panels call for wide areas for their installation and there is some element of unpredictability of availability of sunshine uniformly. Vertical reactors that can grow microorganisms to produce fuels through fermentation route, if successful, can be an attractive alternative. Here is a critique on this important area of futuristic energy front which offers some hope.     

"In a bid to find a substitute to fossil fuels as raw material for the chemical industry, scientists have engineered bacteria, which could help grow chemical precursors for fuels and plastics. "Most chemical feed stocks come from petroleum and natural gas, and we need other sources," assistant professor of chemistry at University of California, Davis and lead author on the study Shota Atsumi said. Biological reactions are good at forming carbon-carbon bonds, using carbon dioxide as a raw material for reactions powered by sunlight, called photosynthesis, and cyanobacteria, also known as "blue-green algae," have been doing it for more than 3 billion years, the Science Daily reported. The challenge is to get the cyanobacteria to make significant amounts of chemicals that can be readily converted to chemical feed stocks. With support from Japanese chemical manufacturer Asahi Kasei Corp., Atsumi's lab at UC Davis has been working on introducing new chemical pathways into the cyanobacteria. The researchers, working a step at a time, built up a three-step pathway that allows the cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide into 2,3 butanediol, a chemical that can be used to make paint, solvents, plastics, and fuels. "Because enzymes may work differently in different organisms, it is nearly impossible to predict how well the pathway will work before testing it in an experiment," Atsumi said. After three weeks growth, the cyanobacteria yielded 2.4 grams of 2,3 butanediol per liter of growth medium - the highest productivity yet achieved for chemicals grown by cyanobacteria and with potential for commercial development, Atsumi added. Atsumi hopes to tune the system to increase productivity further and experiment with other products, while corporate partners explore scaling up the technology. The US Department of Energy has set a goal of obtaining a quarter of industrial chemicals from biological processes by 2025".

Though the developmental efforts are on a smaller scale, if the scientists and the corporate honchos who are footing the bill for this futuristic research are to be believed, the results are encouraging enough to invest further to commercialize the findings. 2,3 Butanediol is indeed a valuable source of energy with versatile industrial applications and probably microbes may be playing much bigger role in future to augment the industrial chemicals production. Biological processes such as this using CO2 as the feed stock have the added advantage of helping the world to reduce the carbon foot print considered responsible for the global warming phenomenon. It is only recently that the CO2 level crossed the 400 ppm level which is considered a forewarning about impending disasters if world does not pull back from this brink soon!


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